When the morning was waking over the war He put on his clothes and stepped out and he died, The locks yawned loose and a blast blew them wide, He dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone And the funeral grains of the slaughtered floor. Tell his street on its back he stopped a sun And the craters of his eyes grew springshoots and fire When all the keys shot from the locks, and rang. Dig no more for the chains of his grey-haired heart. The heavenly ambulance drawn by a wound Assembling waits for the spade’s ring on the cage. O keep his bones away from the common cart, The morning is flying on the wings of his age And a hundred storks perch on the sun’s right hand.
By Dylan Thomas (July 1941)
Additional information: I have seen online a number of sources have ‘springshots’ instead of ‘springshoots’. The book I reference, and the above clip where you can hear the poet himself reciting the poem, confirms it is ‘springshoot’ . I can only imagine those sources copied each other or there is some alternate ‘American English’ version I am unfamiliar with.
Characteristically, the sonnet refuses to let the natural triumph of the centenarian’s death be obscured by piety, officialese or propaganda. Instead, it records the events with a quiet irony – that such an old man should need to be killed by a bomb. The flat title was an actual headline in a newspaper. With an even crueller irony. Thomas considered, as a title for the second part of ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’ known as ‘Among Those Burned to Death was a Child Aged a Few Hours’.
We sit and talk, over coffee in the open-plan lounge. Admire the stones in that hearth – Pebbles from Morfa Beach gathered out of ship-wreck and On a family outing. Imperceptibly stories move round to the ancient subject. ‘When I had my third…’ ‘I told them the pains had started…’ ‘I was left by myself in the ward with the visitors coming And there was the baby, popped out in a sea of flowers, Launched on an ocean of chocolates.
Our membership’s fully paid up, our initiation Long past in that sisterhood Of undignified sweat. Now we pattern our legend, The folklore of generations renews on our tongues. ‘They decided to break my waters…’ ‘I couldn’t sit down except on a pillow…’ What echo? What voice can I hear behind us, We four placid matrons Who speak in such measured remembrance Of passion and blood? ‘We heaped up the bodies to burn them… I gave them whiskey, they laughed as they did it.’ ‘The Sergeant Was a bastard.’ ‘We painted the coal for their visit – painted it black!’
That too I remember. Dark hours of smoke and hard bar stools, And the long-gone soldiers Rehearsing their stories of pain, of ridiculous order, The names like a litany: St. Nazaire, Salerno, Nicosia Abu Dhabi, Seoul, Londonderry.
Civilian veterans, brought face to face With possible death, with fear, with absurdity rampant – We will never swap tales, exchange a still-birth for an ambush Our weird sisters for wartime’s fell serjeant. But the echo is there – We are all of us conscripts In this campaign that is staying alive.
By Sally Roberts Jones
Additional information: The book I referenced referred to the poem both as ‘A Time of War’, on the contents and acknowledgement pages but as ‘A time at war’ where the poem itself is shown. I assume ‘A Time of War’ is the correct title but will mention the other in case anyone knows it by the alternative.
Sally Roberts Jones (born 30 November 1935) is an English-born Welsh poet, publisher and critic. She is a founding member of the English Language Section of Yr Academi Gymreig, she was its Secretary / Treasurer from 1968 to 1975 and its Chair from 1993 to 1997.
She founded the Alun Books imprint and is on the editorial board of the poetry journal Roundyhouse. She has also written and lectured on the cultural and industrial history of Wales and contributed to the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and the New Dictionary of National Biography.
Two particular field of interest she has are the development of the Arthurian legend and research into the field of Welsh Writing in English, though she has also written about Essex, where she was initially raised. In 2019 she was elected a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.
Morfa beach is known locally as “The Morfa” (in Welsh as Y Morfa meaning ‘the sea marsh’), it shapes the south side of the estuary of the River Conwy. Today it is a large sandy bay, which at low tide forms part of the extensive sandy beaches and mussel banks of Conwy Bay, Morfa Conwy has many developments on its land including a beach, gold club, marina and an industrial estate.
St Nazaire is a commune in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France, in traditional Brittany. The poem refers to the St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot was a British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France during the Second World War.
Salerno is is an ancient city and commune in Campania (southwestern Italy) and is the capital of the namesake province. It is located on the Gulf of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city hosted Victor Emmanuel III, the King of Italy, who moved from Rome in 1943 after Italy negotiated a peace with the Allies in World War II, making Salerno the capital of the “Government of the South” (Regno del Sud) and therefore provisional government seat for six months. Some of the Allied landings during Operation Avalanche (the invasion of Italy) occurred near Salerno.
Nicosia is the largest city, capital, and seat of government of Cyprus. It is located near the centre of the Mesaoria plain, on the banks of the River Pedieos. I am assuming the poem is referring to the armed struggle, in 1955, against British rule which aimed to unite the island with Greece, Enosis. The struggle was led by EOKA, a Greek Cypriot nationalist military resistance organisation, and supported by the vast majority of Greek Cypriots. The unification with Greece failed and instead the independence of Cyprus was declared in 1960. During the period of the struggle, Nicosia was the scene of violent protests against British rule.
Abu Dhabi is the capital and the second-most populous city of the United Arab Emirates (after Dubai), it is also the capital of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The city of Abu Dhabi is located on an island in the Persian Gulf, off the Central West Coast. Most of the city and the Emirate reside on the mainland connected to the rest of the country.
Seoul, officially the Seoul Special City, is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea. In 1945, the city was officially named Seoul, and was designated as a special city in 1949. During the Korean War, Seoul changed hands between the Soviet/Chinese-backed North Korean forces and the American-backed South Korean forces several times, leaving the city heavily damaged after the war. The capital was temporarily relocated to Busan. One estimate of the extensive damage states that after the war, at least 191,000 buildings, 55,000 houses, and 1,000 factories lay in ruins. In addition, a flood of refugees had entered Seoul during the war, swelling the population of the city and its metropolitan area to an estimated 1.5 million by 1955. Following the war, Seoul began to focus on reconstruction and modernization.
Derry, officially Londonderry, is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland and the fifth-largest city on the island of Ireland. The name Derry is an anglicisation of the Old Irish name Daire (in modern Irish ‘Doire’) meaning “oak grove”. The old walled city lies on the west bank of the River Foyle, which is spanned by two road bridges and one footbridge. The city now covers both banks (Cityside on the west and Waterside on the east). During the Irish War of Independence, the area was rocked by sectarian violence, partly prompted by the guerilla war raging between the Irish Republican Army and British forces, but also influenced by economic and social pressures. The conflict which became known as the Troubles is widely regarded as having started in Derry with the Battle of the Bogside. The Civil Rights Movement had also been very active in the city. In the early 1970s the city was heavily militarised and there was widespread civil unrest. Several districts in the city constructed barricades to control access and prevent the forces of the state from entering.